"Creatively," said Hal Prince, "Broadway is dead . . . Broadway is real estate. Broadway is uninteresting."
Kicking off a three-day colloquium on "New Alliances for Music Theater" at the Shoreham, the producer/director, whose credits range from Broadway to the Chicago Lyric Opera, sounded a pessimistic note for the future of originality and experimentation in all forms of music theater. His pessimism was echoed by many of the two dozen people who gathered for a dinner and opening discussions under the auspices of the National Opera Institute.
His pessimism was echoed by, among others, lyricist and librettist Sheldon Harnick, whose credits range from "Fiddler on the Roof" to a much-used translation of "Carmen" and original librettos for several operas. Harnick told the sad story of his effort to get financial support for a new musical:
"We had to go to Universal for the money; we figured they had 'E.T.' and they must have plenty. Well, the people on the bottom rung loved it, and the people on the next-highest rung loved it--but somewhere in the middle rungs there was somebody who didn't love it. So we had to go back and start over again at the bottom rung of another studio."
Harnick has turned his back on Broadway, at least for now, and is working on the libretto for a new opera based on "Cyrano de Bergerac."
In June the National Opera Institute will formally change its name to the National Institute of Music Theater, signaling the growing feeling among artists and management people that the similarities in these fields are more significant than the differences. The current colloquium is designed to explore "the implications of increased interaction between musical theater and opera," to examine common problems such as the effect of limited budgets on repertoire and performance standards, to ponder whether a significant audience can "develop the aesthetic sensitivity to understand and to support the dynamic changes taking place in American music theater."
The opening session was devoted to problems, and pessimism abounded. Christopher Keene, music director of the New York City Opera, was particularly unhappy about "the inert intellectual qualities of our audience . . . the rigidity and intellectual bias of the American people."
"We know that only 1 percent of the population goes to musical theater performances," he said, "and only 1 percent of those who go have the ability to generate an informed opinion. In other words, only one person in 10,000 can be expected to become an intelligent and involved enthusiast of the performing arts. That means that we have a total public of 22,500 people."
"Do you have their names?" asked Prince.
"They are all subscribers to the New York City Opera," answered Keene.
Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, whose credits include "Pippin," "Godspell," "The Magic Show" and "Working," was puzzled. "I don't understand," he said, "why costs have jumped so fast for a Broadway musical--much faster than inflation, from $1.5 million to $4.5 million in only three years . . . If I am going to conceive works that will get performed, in practice that means they have to be cast for less than 10 people--a tremendous limitation."
Singer-actress Madalene Capelle, who left medical school for a career in the music theater, recalled her parents' opposition to the change of direction: "My father told me, 'Be a doctor; you can sing to your patients.' " She felt that her musical training gave her adequate technical preparation but "not how to face the reality of the music business in New York . . . We should reach back and prepare students for that reality."
Peter Zeisler, former managing director of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, suggested that "alternative" theaters like the Guthrie are joining the establishment, and "in 20 years, we will have to have an alternative to the alternative theater."
Experimental theater producer Andre Bishop noted that many young playwrights were becoming interested in writing for musical theater, but was concerned about "a lot of talented people who have no place to go except their own living rooms."
Prince, whose track record should make his work welcome anywhere, wondered about the same thing. "The question for me," he said, "is where do we go to work. Broadway is simply an old thing that happened for 30 or 40 years--maybe more--and isn't happening anymore."
Today and tomorrow will be devoted to exploring answers to the questions raised last night. They may not be enough time.